Cheap seats are a hit

Host Neil Patrick Harris performs with the cast

Host Neil Patrick Harris performs with the cast of "The Book of Mormon" at the 66th Annual Tony Awards in Manhattan. (June 10, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Sticker shock is nothing new for theatergoers.

If you can get one, a seat for "The Book of Mormon" tops off this week at $175, though the best and middle-best locations are sold as so-called premium seats. And, if you can get one of those, prepare to pay up to $477. For the final week of "Death of a Salesman," people reportedly counted themselves among the lucky for the privilege of paying $499 for a premium.

Those, of course, are monster hits. More people want to get in than there are chairs in the room. The market wants what the market wants, I suppose.

But what about last spring, when the mediocre (and worse) shows regularly opened with top (not premium) tickets hovering around $140-$150? And even Off-Broadway, where people used to be able to fill their lives with serious affordable theater, major institutions seem unable to stay alive with tickets for less than $70-$80.

But please don't nod off. This isn't another rant about prices nobody should have to pay for two or three hours of entertainment or even art in a seat that makes coach flights feel ergonomic.

I'm talking about an altogether different sticker shock -- a very happy shock, indeed.

I'm talking about the growing number of theaters doing first-rate productions of new work by new and underrepresented artists for $20 and $30 a seat. I love this story. Although a handful of nonprofit companies have quietly been doing this for several years, mostly in alternative series, the experiments have begun looking a lot like a high-profile trend.

Early this year, the Signature Theatre moved into its Frank Gehry-designed marvel on West 42nd Street with a nonstop barrage of challenging offerings in three handsome new playhouses -- all with intimate capacities around 200-300 seats. Thanks to a $25-million grant from the Pershing Square Foundation (apparently, for naming rights to the complex), every seat for every scheduled performance will be $25 for the next 10 years.

Last month, the Lincoln Center Theater opened a provocative new play, "Slowgirl," by new playwright Greg Pierce, in a beautiful third space, the 112-seat Claire Tow, on the roof of the squat rectangle that houses the 1,099-seat (Tony-eligible) Beaumont and the 299-seat (Off-Broadway) Newhouse. This is the new home of LCT3, a series for emerging playwrights that had rented space on 42nd Street for the past three years. All tickets are $20.

And now Manhattan Theatre Club, which has long run its Off-Broadway space on West 55th Street and in 2003 added a Broadway house, the Friedman, on West 47th Street, has announced a new project, The Studio at Stage 11. Unlike Signature and Lincoln Center, this one is not in a new theater but, rather, is a new plan for the smaller space that MTC ran until several years ago.

The headline is that tickets will be $30. Also, the project is a collaboration between MTC and Ars Nova, the adventurous midtown company. As Mandy Greenfield, MTC's artistic producer told me this week, the company had big success with a trial "30 under $30" program. "We started with a handful of emails" from the desirable demographic, she said, "and ended with 10,000 subscriptions. The demand for this work at this ticket level was eye-opening."

Then there is the Roundabout Underground, which the prolific Roundabout opened in 2007 in a 62-seat black box theater under its Off-Broadway venue, the Pels Theatre, on West 46th Street. Tickets are $20, seating is open and the track record has been pretty stupendous. The inaugural play, "Speech & Debate," was by a new playwright named Stephen Karam. Its success led Roundabout to commission Karem's "Sons of the Prophet," a Pulitzer finalist this year.

The theater "is the place where we have the freedom to take greater risks and to do the kind of new work that gets people hooked," artistic director Todd Haimes told me in an email. "Offering tickets at $20 is a doorway for a whole new audience to experience theater."

James Houghton, artistic director of the Signature, began selling just $20 tickets at the company's previous home about seven years ago. "Completely overnight, the dynamics changed, " he told me this week. The program he calls the "ticket initiative" is democratic and, along with outreach marketing and diverse programming, has led to the extraordinarily broad mix of audiences mingling in the lobby.

"And there are no conditions attached," he said. "You don't have to wait in a long line or figure out a secret password. I think there's more of a sense of explorative spirit. People aren't sitting in the theater in a defense mode."

The godfather of people's theater, of course, is Joe Papp's Public Theater, which has offered free Shakespeare in Central Park for 50 years. Back at the theater complex on Lafayette Avenue, the company, now run by Oskar Eustis, charges $15 for all productions from the Public Lab, now in its sixth year, which developed "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." All regular, fully produced offerings, however, charge standard Off-Broadway prices.

Second Stage Theatre and the Atlantic Theatre Company have both run first-class, influential alternative series in smaller venues for years, but tickets tend to cost $45-$50. This new pressure can't be fun for their administrations.

My introduction to high-quality, cheap-ticket paradise came at London's National Theatre in 2003. Artistic director Nicholas Hytner, in his first season of what has become a legendary era, got a huge corporate grant to reduce most seats to what was then 10 pounds (about $18). "It's not rocket science," he told me then. "You look at what ticket prices were in real terms in 1976 and what they are now. They've doubled. So I thought we really have to smash our way out of that spiral."

MTC's slogan for the Studio is "Where bold new work meets bold new audiences." Lincoln Center's logo promises "new artists, new audiences." I suspect the old audiences also are welcome.